The event turned out to be a sort of farming ‘Question Time’ with a panel of four answering a variety of questions put to them by the audience. This should be a lively evening, I thought, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. What else could there be to talk about on the night that Theresa May was trying to sell her Brexit deal to her Cabinet?
The meeting was chaired by Charlotte Smith of Radio 4’s Farming Today. It was strange to be hearing her voice at seven in the evening instead of crackling through my primitive Land Rover radio on my early morning stock lookering run at six in the morning. Whenever she stopped speaking I kept expecting to hear the pips to sound and the dulcet tones of John Humphreys with the latest Brexit headlines.
On the panel was Sean Rickard, ex-NFU farm economist ‘shock jock’ and business consultant who has been hauling his ‘a lot of British farming is rubbish’ show to farmer conferences around the country for decades. Rickard, who has never farmed himself, delights in lecturing farmers about what a bright future they could have if only they’d invest in ‘high-tec’ production techniques instead of bemoaning their lot all the time. He carried on in this vein throughout the debate.
Next to him sat Joe Delves, a successful dairy farmer and Nuffield Scholar. I had never heard him speak before but he certainly doesn’t lack self-confidence about his farming future. He is, in other words, the kind of farmer that I admire but have never remotely understood, given the uncertainties our industry has always faced. Particularly that we now appear to be about to leave the EU.
Also on the platform was Stuart Thompson who heads up the European Food and Farming partnership’s food supply chain. Aha, I thought, we were going to hear about the likely disruption to the European food chain if we get a hard Brexit! Not a bit of it. Instead, Mr Thompson had lots of advice about how farmers needed to cosy up to the big food manufacturers to learn what people are going to eat in the future.
Completing the panel was NFU deputy president Guy Smith. Once upon a time Mr Smith delighted in provoking his farmer audiences when writing as a farmer columnist but these days he often pursues a different agenda. As a politician he is now given to reassuring platitudes about what a great job the current NFU president is doing, and ‘going forward’ (a loathsome phrase he used all evening) what a great job the NFU will continue to do as a farm lobby organisation if we just all get behind it.
Occasionally someone had the bad taste to mention the ‘B-word’ but generally questions were about a diverse range of topics from why the Young Farmers AGM had been cancelled (too much boozing and bad behaviour) to why ‘the Welsh’ get all of their training free while in England it cost a fortune just to get a chainsaw licence renewed.
This seemed to compel Chairman Charlotte Smith to provide us with updates on dramatic Brexit-related events unfolding elsewhere. PM Theresa May, she reminded us, was at that very moment trying to sell her cabinet the ‘deal’ she had negotiated to leave the EU. Via her mobile phone she gave us regular snippets from the BBC website about which ministers had (or had not) resigned. As the panel wrestled with ideas to encourage new entrants into farming or improve education in agriculture to include ‘lifetime learning’, this live link to events in Westminster quickly gave the event a distinctly surreal atmosphere.
No-one asked the big question. Of the 200 farmers in the room would any one of us still be in business if we ended up with a no-deal-hard-Brexit with the simultaneous withdrawal of the BPS and the imposition of WTO trade rules? Nope – no-one asked the panel that question, including myself. I thought about it but then decided not to. After all, why spoil what had otherwise been such a positive and constructive evening?